Terry Korn, President, Australian Floodplain Association

The health of the Darling River system is at a tipping point. Can the system survive the next round of negotiations over how it should be managed? Terry Korn, president of the Australian Floodplain Association discusses a major issue of concern which could seriously impact on recovery of water for the environment, floodplain graziers, Aboriginal culture and small communities downstream of Bourke.

The Australian government has committed almost $15 billion to the largest rural restructure program in Australia and expects to effect significant changes to water management in the Murray-Darling Basin without affecting the reliability of water supply to the irrigation industry. This is an admirable but unreal aspiration.

Few people are aware that the Murray Darling Basin Plan has an escape section for governments unwilling to implement decisions which impact on the reliability of water supply to the irrigation industry. The interpretation of this section of the Basin Plan by MDBA and States is “the elephant in the room” and has the potential to undo not only the gains brought about by the Plan, but threatens many environmental gains achieved for the Basin’s rivers during the last 25 years.

The section of the Basin Plan interpreted as doing this is section 6.14. It states that;

Nothing in the Basin Plan requires a change in the reliability of water allocations of a kind that would trigger Subdivision B of Division 4 of Part 2 of the [Water] Act.

It is my understanding that the MDBA’s view, and the view of at least some of the states, is that this section overrides or turns off any part of the Basin Plan whose requirements, in being met, may change the reliability of water allocations. This includes environmental management provisions essential to achieving the outcomes of the Basin Plan, which depend on the protection of environmental water throughout the Basin.

Of particular concern is the view that section 6.14 can turn off parts of Chapter 10 that deal with water requirements of priority environmental assets and ecosystem functions, planning for environmental watering and enabling environmental watering between connected systems. This view holds that the section can also turn off parts of Chapters 7 and 8 that enable environmental flows along and between rivers, piggybacking of environmental flows, and changes to river operations where they are needed for effective environmental watering.

It is also the position of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority that the Basin Plan can be fully implemented based on current water sharing and river operation arrangements; i.e., requiring no changes to existing arrangements.

This means Water Resource Plans (WRPs), which are being revised at present, need not include new rules if those rules affect reliability of supply. Basin States can include rules in WRPs or Water Sharing Plans (WSPs) which may reduce reliability but these are not required under the Basin Plan. These plans must be approved by the Murray Darling Basin Authority and ultimately the Minister.  But the likelihood of such rules being approved if they were perceived to favour the environment rather than the irrigation industry is highly improbable.

The legal validity of the interpretation and application of section 6.14 by the MDBA and States must be challenged as it has the potential to seriously undermine the original intent of the Basin Plan.

We can relate the application of section 6.14 to the management of the Barwon/Darling River system.

Barwon/Darling Water Sharing Plan

In October 2012 the Barwon Darling Water Sharing Plan commenced with amended rules, but without those rules having been adequately discussed with the community, especially those communities downstream of the major irrigation areas such as Bourke. The Basin Plan was approved in November 2012 which meant the Barwon/Darling WSP was deemed an interim plan to be revised by 2019 and subject to the conditions set by the Basin Plan.

What were some of these changes made at such a late stage which significantly changed water management in that section of the river system?

The new rules permitted use of larger pumps for extraction of low flows. The mechanism proposed to protect low flows, Daily Extraction Limits, was excluded from the WSP. These two changes combined reduce the critically important low flows in the Darling system, thus exposing downstream users to less water, longer dry periods, increased salinity and increased likelihood of algal blooms.

This interpretation of section 6.14 of the Basin Plan combined with MDBA’s view that no changes are required to existing water sharing arrangements, has serious consequences for communities and the environment. The Barwon-Darling WSP is a clear example of the consequences of this. The last minute changes to the Barwon-Darling WSP mean that there is now no effective protection of low flows, including environmental water, downstream stock and domestic supplies and downstream community water supply. These changes are now entrenched in a plan that, in MDBA’s view, does not need to be changed to meet the requirements of the Basin Plan.

Community well-being is strongly influenced by the health of the river. Ask the Wilcannia community about this!

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